According to Wikipedia there are over a dozen places (worth of note) across the globe called “London,” from Ontario to West Virginia to California to Kiribati, not to mention the big one in England. In spite of whatever differences those places have, they all share the fact that they are part of our world and bound by the laws of physics.
The Londons of A Darker Shade of Magic, not so much. They’re all in the same place as London, England, but all they really share in common is the name. Grey London (which is ours, I’m pretty sure) is dreary and dull, when it comes to magic. By contrast, magic thrives in Red London and is an important part of life there. It’s more of a power struggle in brutal White London. What magic did to Black London is, well, pretty awful.
A Darker Shade of Magic is the story of Kell, one of the few people with the ability to move back and forth between the various Londons. He serves as a courier, technically working for the king in Red London, but taking messages both ways. He also has a side gig, smuggling small objections from one London to the other. It’s in that capacity that he gets into trouble (isn’t that always the case?) and, in the process, threatens the safety of Red London and all those he cares about. Along the way he acquires a sidekick in Lilah, a pickpocket from Grey London with big dreams (she wants to be a pirate) and, we’re lead to believe, a bit of a secret when it comes to magic.
There are other characters, too, wonderfully drawn and (in some cases) downright frightening. Their interaction is the best thing about A Darker Shade of Magic, whether it’s slowly growing admiration of Lilah’s abilities by Kell, the attempts of Kell’s semi-brother Rhy to hit on her, or the way the king and queen of White London completely control a room (and a kingdom). It helps that the book takes the time to build these worlds up (the first third is, essentially, a travelogue as Kell moves from one London to the other) so that the characters seem like natural expressions of those places.
In fact, the scene setting is more interesting than the real plot, when it finally gets to it. Part of the issue is that there are dual threats that seem like they might be linked, but we never really find out if they are. They create a lot of havoc for our heroes, but it’s unclear to just what end. One thing I will note, however, is that while this is the first book of a series, it does tell a complete story, while managing to leave enough dangling to make you want to read more.
Where things go wonky is where magic plays a key role in the plot. That’s because the magic of A Darker Shade of Magic tends to morph to fit the needs of the plot. We’re initially told that what makes Kell (and his White London counterpart, Holland) special is that they alone can travel between the Londons, an increasingly rare skill. But by the end of the book Lilah and others are doing it, too, with no particularly good explanation. Also, at a critical moment near the climax of the book, game winning magic essentially becomes a Peter Pan “wish hard and it works” exercise. It’s kind of disappointing that for a story where magic is talked about so much and plays such a key role in things that it’s nature, scope, and impact doesn’t seem well thought out.
As big of a hole as that sounds for a book with the word “magic” in the title, it’s really not. The end destination may not live up to the hype, the journey is well worth it. As I said, this book tells a complete story and I could walk away from the series, satisfied, if a little disappointed. I’m not. Which should tell you something.